Shambhala Sun | May 2014
I Did Not Lose My Mind
It took an illness
of the brain for MEG HUTCHINSON to discover the inherent sanity of her own
mind. Her breakdown was actually a breakthrough.
I was twenty-eight
years old when my life fell apart. I had been quietly struggling with
depression since I was nineteen, but increasingly the lows were followed by
periods of ecstatic exuberance and boundless energy. What I had always written
off as an “artistic temperament” was starting to become an exhausting ride.
spring, I’d been selected to participate in a whirlwind musical tour of the
U.K., performing with several other bands. We drank too much and slept too
little, and it all felt easy to me. I was quick to laugh, suddenly extroverted,
filled with creative energy. But when I returned to Boston, I quickly spiraled
I began having
trouble sleeping, even for an hour. I got lost driving in my own neighborhood.
My reflexes slowed down and I had trouble playing the guitar. When I tried to
pack for a trip to Minnesota, I found it difficult to make decisions. My brain
could no longer handle even simple tasks. How many clothes would I need for a
two-week trip? How did that knob on the washing machine work? What season was
As I felt the fog
closing in on my life, bewilderment turned to fear. My brain was racing in
tight circles of anxiety, but try as I might, I couldn’t untangle my thoughts.
I felt as though I was rapidly developing Alzheimer’s.
I was experiencing
what I later learned is called a “mixed state,” in which someone with bipolar
disorder is suffering mania and depression simultaneously. After five days of
total insomnia, I called my family. It took tremendous courage to say, “Mom,
there is something chemically wrong with me. I’m coming home.”
My parents are
former hippies. My sisters and I went to an alternative school and were raised
on homeopathy and co-op foods. In my family, if you’re feeling “blue” you eat a
little more kale, go on another hike, or write a poem. But I was no longer in
control of my brain function; none of the things that had helped me with
depression in the past were having any effect.
It took all of my
focus to drive those two and a half hours home to the Berkshires. The Mass
Turnpike was still relatively empty as the sun began to rise. Looking at the
colorful morning sky, I realized I wasn’t responding to beauty. It was like the
channel through which I perceived life had turned a muted gray.
People who have
never experienced severe depression often imagine it to be an extreme sadness.
Those of us who have lived with it know that it’s beyond that. It is a profound
dullness, and it manifests in the physical body as tangibly as any major
As I drove that
morning, I had lines from Theodore Roethke’s poem “In a Dark Time” stuck on repeat
in my head. They were lines I had painted on my bedroom wall as a teenager:
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade...
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance?
Those words seem
like foreshadowing to me now. I felt myself sinking down into the deeper
recesses of my subconscious mind, wondering what I might find lurking there. I
focused on the word “nobility.” I thought, let me handle this absolute
confusion with some kind of nobility.
I pulled the car
into my mom’s driveway and walked up the path to the house I was born in. “I
have never seen you look this way,” my mom said. I saw the first wave of fear
cross her face. As a child, I was so happy and calm that Mom used to call me
“Buddha baby.” I’d always been emotionally self-sufficient, and my response to
adversity had been to work harder and stoically wait it out.
Yet now I couldn’t
solve my problems on my own, and it was beyond the abilities of my family too.
For several days my sisters tried everything—salt baths, warm food, massage,
slow walks, sleeping medication, valerian root, therapy—but finally we agreed
it was time for the hospital. Fortunately my younger sister was studying for
her master’s in social work and was able to educate all of us about psychiatric
illness and advocate fiercely for me.
I checked myself
into the psychiatric inpatient unit at Berkshire Medical Center, where I was
diagnosed with bipolar disorder and stayed for twenty-one days. I fought to
stay alive with my whole being while the illness ravaged my brain and made me
desperate to escape my body. That is where this story really begins.
Because my brain
was so compromised, I had a tremendous opportunity: I had the chance to see
what remained. I didn’t have words for it yet, but what remained was a deep
thread of consciousness connecting me to something at my core. A breakdown, I
came to find out, is actually a kind of accelerated spiritual lesson. So much
is accomplished so rapidly when the brain undergoes a terrific malfunction.
One’s entire identity is shattered.
I was suddenly
stripped of everything I had ever counted as my “self.” I was wearing a
combination of my sister’s clothes and hospital pajamas. I was sharing a
desolate room with a total stranger. I wasn’t allowed many personal
possessions, and none of the food resembled anything I normally ate. I couldn’t
concentrate long enough to read even a paragraph, and when I looked in the
mirror, my eyes were so dark and my face so thin that I didn’t recognize my
reflection. None of the ways I’d defined myself in the world had any bearing.
On a psych unit, no
one cares if you were a straight-A student, if you were a three-season varsity
athlete, if you were popular or successful. Your personal narrative is useless
in there. In fact, I experienced a strong allergic reaction to my own ego. I
was overwhelmed with memories of my arrogance and competitiveness and felt a
strong regret for all the ways in which I had judged others.
Reality is totally
up for grabs on an inpatient unit. When I said, “I’m a folk musician and I was
on tour in Europe,” I got the same impartial stare from the social worker in
group therapy as the guy next to me received when he claimed there was a devil
living in his neighbor’s garage.
I had none of the
tools left with which I’d always oriented myself in the world. Instead, I
discovered a deep knowing that was a witness to my experience and guided me
even when my brain was failing. What remained was a quiet gentleness, a belief
in something larger and greater than the excruciating emotional pain at hand.
It was this deeply ingrained instinct, however faint, that kept me safe from
even myself. I did not lose my mind that summer. I found it.
It took six weeks
for me to sleep long enough to dream again. The first night I did, I dreamed I
was walking up a steep mountain road with hundreds of fellow refugees. The
earth was gray and dark, but we were all dressed in bright colors and carried
our few belongings on our backs. The dream was vivid, and I woke the next
morning with a strong sense of hope.
The second night I
dreamed that I was walking along a forest path. The trees were tall and green
all around me. I began to run faster and faster, leaping higher and higher
until I lifted right off and flew.
Slowly, each day,
the world returned to me. My sister took me whale watching off the coast of
Provincetown. We had been on many whale watches in our lives, but this one was
extraordinary. Three whales came right up to the side of the boat and began to
breach and splash backward into the water. They danced and played, staying
beside us for a long time.
I stood at the
rail, holding my sister’s arm, laughing and laughing with her in the salt air.
As the sun went down, the sky turned the most amazing purple and gold, and I
felt the beauty reach me. I thought about that Roethke poem again: In a dark
time, the eye begins to see. I was seeing the world in a way I never had
This is not a
miracle story. I survived because I got help. My brain stabilized because I
already had a solid foundation of health and a good support network, I took
medication diligently, went to therapy, and changed my lifestyle. I healed
because I walked through that door the illness opened for me.
I no longer think
of that summer as my “breakdown” but as the year of my “breakthrough.” At age
twenty-eight, I was given a wake-up call, which will inform the rest of my
life. I was given a profound teaching on the truth of suffering, on the nature
of reality, and on the preciousness of human life. Without that pain, I may not
have woken up until I was a very old woman. Or not at all.
I have always had
an interest in Buddhism, yet it was my experience that summer that prepared me
to meet my teacher and take refuge. For many years I’d been walking past a
Buddhist monk on a path near my house. I’d always felt a strong connection to
him but hadn’t felt bold enough to say hello. After returning to Boston, a
friend invited me to dinner with a Tibetan lama. It turned out to be that same
monk I’d been walking past all those years. I was ready now to become a
In these seven
years of recovery, I have found a middle way between Buddhism and Western
medicine. In order for me to practice meditation, I’ve finally accepted that
medication must play a role in keeping my brain healthy. But it’s the spiritual
work that has allowed me the most profound healing, both physically and
I think we’ve made
a grave mistake in calling psychiatric illnesses “mental illness.” This implies
that at our core, we are essentially diseased. Many illnesses of the brain are
severe enough to cloud our mental consciousness, but my experience confirmed
for me that the mind and brain are not the same thing.
It took an illness
of the brain for me to discover the inherent sanity of my own mind. Now I
meditate every day to strengthen that clarity. I meditate to give it more and
more space in my life, to ensure that this inner witness is even stronger the
next time I have to go through something difficult. Having lived through a
small death, I recognize the importance of practicing for the bigger death of
this physical body.
There is no greater
incentive in recovery than the realization that we have always been well. We
come into the world with the “nobility of soul” that Roethke talks about. No
matter what the circumstances are, that purity remains and we can find our way
back to it. Illness can break our hearts, but it can also break our hearts
From the May 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.
Photo: Meg Hutchinson, by Stephan Hoglund